Nirin knew he would attract more attention if he tried to run. He ducked his head and closed his eyes, hoping the lines of disciples in front of him blocked him from view. It was possible he was not even recognizable after eight years. He side-glanced at Kiol but the boy was oblivious to everything, staring at a corner of the ceiling with blank boredom.
The head priest recited a prayer that the disciples echoed along with. Nirin glanced at the open doorway. They were closest to it. As soon as the room stood up they could rush out. Except… his flute was still in the guest quarters. Nirin closed his eyes and withheld a sigh. Whatever. Get the flute and their things, and get out.
The room fell to silence and he looked up, startled, but it was because the head priest was giving an offering to Creator’s statue. Nirin touched the back of Kiol’s hand and he looked over.
“It is dangerous here. We must leave at once.”
“Huh?” Kiol looked around. “Is someone violent? I can take them.”
The disciples began to stand. Nirin got to his feet and bee-lined for the door. But the priest noticed him after all.
The voice made his soul freeze. He grabbed Kiol’s wrist and sprinted out.
“No! Stop that boy! He’s a murderer!”
Fortunately none of the disciples reacted appropriately. They had no instinct like that, they weren’t soldiers. In fact, the command made most of them move out of the way faster.
“What? Where are we going?” Kiol asked, keeping up with Nirin easily as he pulled him through the halls. Nirin obviously could not stop to give him an explanation. He got back to the guest quarters and snatched up their things. Kiol looked on blankly.
“We must leave. Now!” Nirin signed frantically, then took off. He skidded to a halt almost immediately and stumbled back into the room. The head priest and the priest who had been catering to them blocked the doorway.
“I can’t believe it,” Gendith said, shaking his head. “After these long years, you walk right back into my path. Well, the crow may fool the tiger, but the tiger needs only one bite.”
“What the hell is going on?” Kiol demanded, stepping in front of Nirin.
“That boy you’re with is a murderer and a fugitive. He is to be imprisoned under my authority.”
“Wh—” Kiol looked back at Nirin, but Nirin could not sign anything before he whipped back around. “Years ago, when he was a child? What the hell is wrong with you?!”
“Step aside, boy. There’s no reason to be implicated in this too.”
“Please do as he says,” the woman pressed. “If there’s a misunderstanding it will all be cleared up…”
“There’s no misunderstanding!” Gendith barked. “He killed two people and then escaped detainment! That is an immediate admission of guilt!”
“Fuckin’ bullshit,” Kiol muttered. Before Nirin could stop him the boy lashed out fast as lightning and Gendith dropped to the ground like stone. The other priest stumbled away from her unconscious leader, looking terrified.
“Get out of our way,” Kiol growled. She quickly stepped aside. Kiol grabbed the bag from Nirin, took his hand, and dragged him out. They were well out of the town territory when he finally stopped, mostly because Nirin could barely keep up anymore. He gratefully collapsed into the snow, trying to catch his breath. Kiol stood patiently, keeping an eye on the horizon for pursuers.
“You don’t believe him,” Nirin signed. Kiol glanced down at the motion and caught the end of the sentence. He shrugged.
“Of course not. Some random kid isn’t likely to be a murderer, and especially not you.”
Nirin gave a small exhale and smiled to himself. “It is true, though. I murdered two people. Maybe more.”
“What?” Kiol switched to speech again, too shocked for sign-speak. “That’s not possible.”
“I told you before. I’m not the good and virtuous person you see me as.”
“But… why? Who?”
Nirin shook his head. “Nevermind that. We should keep going. Can we please go slower, though?”
“Uh—of course.” Kiol held out a hand. Nirin hesitated, then took it, and let Kiol’s strength bring him to his feet. Kiol dusted the clinging snow off Nirin’s robes, then continued walking without a word. He was flabbergasted, and curious, but he kept quiet. If anyone knew a person didn’t have to explain their past actions, it was him.
They had left in the evening, when the sun was behind the trees. It didn’t take long for it to fall completely and the sky overhead turned black. No clouds blocked the moon and they trudged along by its light. Even without a full moon the reflection off the snow allowed them to see clear as day. Though, Nirin knew, Kiol would have been able to see regardless.
“I’m sorry,” Nirin signed after a long time. “I should have told you.”
“Nevermind.” Kiol signed lightly, but his soul was heavy. “I guess you don’t have to tell me what you don’t want to.” He was still thinking of Nirin’s earlier betrayal. Nirin sighed inwardly.
“This matter is… challenging. A life that is no longer mine.” Kiol understood. “I will do better from now on, I won’t keep anything from you.” Kiol looked away. He didn’t believe it. Nirin pulled his arm so he’d turn back. “I mean it,” he signed forcefully. “It’s you and me, Kiol. Against everyone else. I trust you no matter what.” He held out his hand. He didn’t have a Promise - Eternal - Trust seal, but it was enough.
Kiol looked at his hand, then reached into his pocket and pulled a piece of wood out. It was the seal Nirin had given him during the Harvest Celebration. It felt so long ago. The inscription was still pristine. Love - Happiness - Affection.
“I trust you.” Kiol clasped the seal between their hands. “To the end.”
Nirin grinned. “To the end.”
“Where do we go now? This was a pretty big village. If none of your… friends are here, they won’t be in any of the surrounding areas either.”
“You don’t know that,” Nirin signed.
“I know that I don’t want to wander around in the freezing cold for weeks on end.”
Nirin’s eyes turned down as he thought. “Well… we could do it another way. But I don’t know if it’ll work.” He could feel Kiol’s confusion, and Kiol knew it, so he stood in silence waiting for an explanation. “I suppose we might as well try. Let’s find the next village.”
They walked through the night and most of the next day before coming upon another civilization. This one was surrounded by endless flat fields, surely a farming village. They passed crumbling remnants of grander buildings. Once a metropolis, it had been reduced to this after the Thousand Night Battle, like so many other settlements.
“There’s no temple,” Kiol signed. With a few squat homes, it was likely deemed too small to warrant its own temple. It meant this village was under the authority of another, perhaps even the temple they’d come from.
“Will you let me do the talking now?”
“The talking?” Kiol smirked. Nirin peered up at him and Kiol sighed, crossed his arms, and looked away. “Might be better if I’m not here at all,” he muttered. “I can sleep outside, I don’t care.”
“No,” Nirin signed simply, and went to the first house. The woman who opened it looked across the two of them with confused trepidation. Nirin caught a glimpse of the small home behind her, a single room with five children huddled around the center fire, all staring back at him. The oldest might have been nine or ten, with no father in sight.
He donned a sweet smile and gave the woman a gentle bow. Then he gestured between himself and Kiol, and pretended his hands were a pillow. The woman’s eyes turned to Kiol, who at least was standing neutrally.
“I barely have space for my own family,” she said wearily. “You will have to ask someone else.”
Nirin waved his hands to show it was not a problem, and made the sleep gesture again. Then he lifted Kiol’s arm and patted his bicep while Kiol looked on with mild interest.
“Tell her you will help in the morning,” Nirin signed to him. “With whatever she needs help with.”
“Uh…” Kiol looked back to the woman, blank-faced. “Yeah. I’ll help.”
Nirin sighed and almost face-palmed. But the woman understood the message.
“Will you fetch our water and chop firewood for us?” she asked. Kiol nodded. She thought for a moment, looking the boys over. Then she stepped aside. “Well, come in then, quick. I’ve let in enough cold as it is.” Nirin bowed in gratitude, pushing Kiol’s back to remind him to bow too. Then they stepped inside. The five children all scooted to the far side of the fire as though propelled there.
Kiol dropped himself by the fire and pulled off his mittens to warm his hands close to it. He gave no acknowledgment of the kids. Nirin smiled and waved at them.
“So what was this ‘other way’?” Kiol signed when Nirin sat beside him.
“I will show you later,” Nirin replied.
“Can’t you talk?” one of the younger children asked. Kiol slid an icy gaze over to the kid but Nirin smiled and shook his head. “Why not?”
His mother clicked her tongue. “That is rude to ask,” she scolded.
Nirin nudged Kiol’s elbow. “Tell them an evil spirit took my voice.”
Kiol frowned at him, but obligingly reiterated it. The children gasped and leaned forward, the firelight morphing the shadows on their faces in a constant dance.
“Why, how? Why!”
“Because I disobeyed my mother, and went into the forest alone.”
Kiol’s monotone delivery didn’t quell their interest. Three of them spoke over each other. “And then what?” “What happened then?” “How did it take your voice?”
The woman cast Nirin a glance, then stood and began laying out thin bedding.
“I got lost, and soon it was night. All the shadowy trees look like figures in the dark, and I was scared. I ran until I saw a light, and then I followed it, but it never got any closer. Then I heard laughing, and realized I was tricked by a spirit. I begged it to let me go, but it demanded something in return. I offered my hair, but it wanted more. I offered my fingernails, but even that was not enough. It asked for my name, but I knew never to give that up. When I refused, in its anger it tore the voice from my throat and ran off with it.”
The children gasped, and one of them clutched their eldest sibling.
“But how did you get out?” she asked, patting her brother’s back to comfort him. Kiol exhaled, looking at Nirin. He didn’t want to keep talking. Nirin thought this may have been the longest he had ever spoken in front of him, possibly ever.
“It’s almost over,” he reassured him, and continued.
“I started to cry. Even though my cries were silent, a beautiful bird saw me and landed before me. ‘Why are you crying?’ it asked. Of course, I could not even tell it why. When I moved my lips, no sound came out. ‘Oh, that evil spirit, he took your voice, didn’t he?’ the bird said. They were enemies, you see, and the bird hated the spirit. It bade me to follow it, and it led me out of the woods. There, it turned into a boy twice as handsome as the bird had been.” Nirin smiled wide. “He promised to be my voice from then on and stay by my side forever. And so he has.”
Kiol was so busy translating, he didn’t realize what Nirin had signed until after it was past his lips. He shut his mouth abruptly and turned an annoyed frown to Nirin. But the children were all watching Kiol with wide, starry eyes.
“Whoa! That was so nice of you, Mr. Bird!”
Kiol’s jaw tightened and he glared. “I—” He cut himself off and huffed. “Whatever,” he grumbled, and lay down in the dirt, turning his back to the fire and the children.
“That was a very nice story,” the woman said. “Now it’s time to sleep. Come on, you too, Luaya.” The eldest pouted, but followed her siblings the short distance to the laid out blanket. Their mother shoveled a few ashes over the fire until it was smoldering. Then she passed a blanket to Nirin. “It is the only one I can spare,” she said apologetically. Nirin smiled and took it.
In the morning, Kiol insisted on chopping firewood first, so Nirin went with Asaya to gather two buckets of water so they could at least start warming it and clean their hands and faces. Nirin taught the children a few sign-speak words, and let them touch his robes and hair. Kiol would have been annoyed if he was there, but Nirin didn’t mind at all. They were just curious. They’d never seen such fine clothes or jewelry.
When Kiol had split enough logs to last the family probably a week or more, he got them more water. Asaya fed them a hearty vegetable soup with plain steamed buns, and under Nirin’s direction, Kiol asked what the nearest town was called. West Snake Hill, a name Nirin vaguely recognized. Which meant Tori would definitely know it.
They thanked the family— Nirin with many deep bows, and Kiol with a half-hearted “thanks”—then Nirin brought Kiol back to the ruins they had passed on the way in. Though not made of Creator’s red stone, they were clearly from that time, tall pillars of cold stone fallen to the ground or leaning across buildings they once supported. There had been no attempts to fix them. In fact, some of the houses in the village looked like they were made of scavenged rubble.
The two figures ducked under a leaning pillar into the damp early-morning chill that was trapped within the dark room. Nirin knelt and used his jacket sleeve to clear the floor of dirt and mildew.
“Give me your knife,” Nirin signed. Kiol obligingly took it from his jacket and handed it over. But when Nirin held it up to his arm Kiol grabbed his wrist.
“Hey, don’t do that.”
Nirin smiled. “It is okay. This requires blood.”
“Then use mine.” Kiol pulled up his sleeve and held out his arm. It had a few small scars, but was mostly unblemished. Given that Kiol was also god-gifted, perhaps his blood was as potent as Nirin’s. But Nirin still shook his head and gently pushed Kiol’s arm back down.
“It is okay,” he signed again. “I am used to it.”
Kiol’s face twisted. “Saying that makes it worse,” he signed.
Nirin raised his shoulders, not sure what else to tell him. He wouldn’t cut Kiol or let him cut himself. “Either this, or we wander in the snow for weeks.”
Kiol set his jaw and Nirin looked up at him innocently. Finally he huffed and turned away, crossing his arms.
Nirin drew the dagger across his arm and used the blood to write out a messenger sigil. The second he sat back on his heels, Kiol tore a strip from his shirt to bandage the cut. Nirin watched him, smiling.
A presence. Kiol and Nirin sensed it at the same time, and both turned to see wide eyes peering around the door-frame.
Chapter 39<< >>Chapter 41